I’ll admit it: I love cemeteries. Not because I’m a morbid person, but because the stories found on gravestones tend to carry a little more magic than ideas that start life inside an author’s head, simply because they are true. Until they grow wings.
At the Royal Hospital Burial Ground in Chelsea we find two examples of fabulous women; women who disguised themselves as men and joined the armed services to go in search of their husbands. Here, right in front of us, we have stories of love, cross-dressing, courage and hints of scandal.
The first woman to be granted the honour of being buried among her male colleagues was Irish-born Christiana Davis (1664 – 1739). Having joined the army to search for her husband, she was imprisoned by the French, and later served at Blenheim where she was wounded and her sex discovered. In 1712, at the age of 48, she was presented to the Queen Anne who granted her a pension for life.
In the case of Hannah Snell, she assumed her brother-in-law’s identity and went in search of the husband she thought had deserted her, only to learn that he had been executed for murder. Claims that she joined the 6th Regiment of Foot, only to desert who given 500 lashes, may not be founded. However, there is a clear history of the two years that she served with the Marines, including the battle wounds that she received at Devicotta.
In 1750, Hannah revealed all in her memoirs, The Female Soldier: Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell.
But it is another eighteenth century cross-dresser who was one of my inspirations when writing I Stopped Time: Phoebe Hessell. Rather than be parted from him, Phoebe chose to enlist in the 5th Regiment of Foot so that she could serve alongside her lover, Golding. Both remained in the British Army, and fought and were wounded in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. She kept her sex a secret until after Golding was discharged without her, and was granted permission to nurse him back to health.
You couldn’t make this stuff up!
A good companion when planning your next visit to one of London’s cemeteries is Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons’s London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer.